No more bets, please

opinion June 26, 2014 00:00

By The Nation

Eradicating illegal gambling might be impossible but, with enough effort and funding, we can suppress this problem and the social ills that it brings

Thai gamblers are heading in droves for casinos in neighbouring countries amid a crackdown on illegal gambling at home. The ruling National Council for Peace and Order blitz on organised crime has already seen several raids on underground casinos, seizures of hundreds of electronic gambling machines, arrests of illicit bookmakers and their clients, and the blocking of hundreds of online gambling sites.
In the space of little more than a month, the junta has achieved something the police failed to do for decades – effectively discouraging illegal gambling.
The major problem here has traditionally been poor, or absent, enforcement of the law. 
In many cases, the police officers in charge of enforcing anti-gambling laws have a conflict of interest: they too benefit from illegal gambling. 
Some are paid to turn a blind eye by the bosses of dens and rackets that operate on their beat. Others are rumoured to be directly involved in the gaming or else aiding their wives in running underground lotteries. There is little doubt that military officers, too, have taken a “cut of the action”.
Junta chief General Prayuth Chan-ocha seems well aware of the involvement of men in uniform. After taking power he warned that he didn’t want to see “mafia, in whatever colour uniform”.
Gambling is illegal with the exception of government lottery and horse racing. However, it is undeniable that many of us like a “flutter”. The occasional bet with disposable income rarely does any harm, but gambling can also be highly addictive. Caught in the grip of that addiction, gamblers can build up huge debts and do untold damage to their lives and families. Gambling has been linked to higher rates of crime and domestic violence. 
There are more than 300 illegal gambling dens in Bangkok alone, says outspoken politician Chuwit Kamolvisit, a former massage-parlour owner who claims “insider” knowledge of the capital’s underworld. Illegal gambling in Thailand is estimated to be worth between Bt270 billion and Bt360 billion, according to Sungsidh Piriyarangsan, a researcher at Rangsit University.
To enforce the anti-gambling law effectively, we need police to do their duty and not fall prey to temptation. Unfortunately, the proliferation of gambling dens and bookmaking rackets is clear proof of a problem in enforcement. Instead of upholding the law, officers are facilitating the gambling in exchange for bribes.
Eradicating the problem altogether might be an impossible goal, but with effort, determination and funding, we can suppress this problem and the social ills it brings. Gambling operators and their financiers should be charged with money laundering and their assets seized. The confiscated revenue could then go to the national coffers.
All of Thailand’s neighbours have casinos, many placed on the border to cater to Thai gamblers, who bet billions of baht every year abroad. If Thailand wants to remain a casino-free haven in this region, we need to get tough on illegal gambling. Our police force must be serious about cracking down, which means none of its officials should be allowed to fraternise with the betting “mafia”. And if they want to achieve their goal of “safeguarding the public and upholding social order”, our military rulers must follow suit and weed out any men in uniform involved in this multibillion-baht underground business.